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Mermaid Goes on Display at Harvard Museum

Nearly every story about mermaids (other than the Disney ones) includes a reference to the famous Feejee or Fiji Mermaid which dates back to the 1800s, was exhibited by P.T. Barnum and gets pulled into most conversations about paranormal and cryptid frauds and hoaxes. However, the real tale of this mermaid is fascinating and worth retelling as it goes on open (without a glass protective case) display for one day next month at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University for its 150th anniversary celebration.

It’s a fake, but it’s this really interesting little piece, and students like it because it speaks to the earlier age of museum history. And it was referred to in an episode of the ‘X-Files.’

Diana Loren, curator at the museum and current keeper of the mermaid, will give a presentation on its history, how it was made, the 19th century mermaid craze it was part of and how it ended up at the museum. According to most experts, the Feejee mermaid was constructed (more on how later) in Japan in 1810. Brought to the U.S. by Dutch merchants who claimed it was caught near the Fiji Islands, it was purchased by American sea captain Samuel Barrett Eades in 1822. His son inherited it upon his death and sold it to Moses Kimball, the founder of the Boston Museum.

1822 illustration of the Feejee mermaid

1822 illustration of the Feejee mermaid

“Museum” at that time meant it was a combination theater, wax museum, natural history museum, zoo and art museum, making Moses Kimball a rival of New York City’s P.T. Barnum. It was apparently a friendly rivalry, as Kimball and Barnum agreed to jointly exhibit the mermaid. Kimball admitted in a later interview that he knew the mermaid was a “fraud,” which means Barnum knew as well.

Illustration of Feejee from Barnum's autobiography

Illustration of Feejee from Barnum’s autobiography

The Feejee Mermaid’s “shriveled, ape-like head” and “half-human, half-hog teeth” were thought to have been created by artistic Japanese fishermen who liked to combine dried parts of fish, land animals, birds and possibly humans into strange and horrific mermaids and sea creatures (Feejee appears to be a combination of monkey and fish) to be sold to anyone who likes those kinds of things.

Article in the 1842 Charleston Courier on an appearance of he Feejee Mermaid

Article in the 1842 Charleston Courier on an appearance of the Feejee Mermaid

P.T. Barnum took Feejee on the road and generated huge public interest in mermaids nationwide, even getting in the middle of a rival newspaper war in South Carolina. However, its alleged path to the Peabody Museum has many twists and questionable turns. There’s some thought that the original burned in one of the many fires that occurred at Barnum’s museum and that the Feejee on display is a fraud of a hoax. Comparisons of the Museum’s Feejee with drawings of Barnum’s show some small differences which could be attributed to handling or damage, possibly by one of the fires.

Other exhibits claim to have the original Feejee but Loren insists that the Peabody has the most proof their mermaid is the (oxymoron alert) real fraud.

Real or fake, Feejee’s tale is a much better story than the ones told by Hans Christian Anderson, Disney or any lonely fisherman.

Keep dreaming

Keep dreaming

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